It is Act IV of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and the star of the play, Arthur Leander, is dying. As he collapses, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic in training, begins CPR. Despite his efforts, Leander dies. The audience leaves to face a snowstorm, but very soon, they will all face a terrible fate: the Georgian Flu has just arrived in Toronto. It will kill hundreds of thousands, leaving the world in darkness and chaos. “No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.” (p. 31)
Twenty years later, the story continues as the nomadic Traveling Symphony walks along the coast of Lake Michigan. One of their actors is Kirsten Raymonde, a young lady who had a small nonspeaking role in the Toronto production of
King Lear on the night when Arthur Leander died and the civilized world ended. “Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt.” (p. 35) Earth has become a dangerous place without technology, transportation, energy, or government. Communities exist in isolation, and violence and terror are everywhere. Despite these hardships, the traveling actors continue to perform Shakespearean plays to brighten the lives of isolated settlements of people.
Kirsten carries two comic books that Arthur Leander gave her: Station Eleven and
The Pursuit. They tell the story of physicist Dr. Eleven, who lives on a space station designed to look like a small planet. According to the numbering on these comics, there are only ten copies in existence. Who wrote them? Why did Leander give them to her? Why are these comics so important in a post-apocalyptic world?
This beautifully written novel about the future has a complex narrative structure. Shakespeare lovers will definitely appreciate the references to his plays and his life. Station Eleven weaves together the story of Arthur Leander’s complicated life and the reality of a world ravaged by a pandemic. Arthur’s fateful last night was the last night of normal life of Earth because the Georgian Flu pandemic was already spreading. Within three weeks, civilization collapsed. Survivors ran from roving bands
who randomly killed everyone they met. The Shakespearean company came together to make the world a better place despite the terrible conditions the actors faced.
The novel is full of magnificent and complex characters and reminiscent of David Mitchell’s
Cloud Atlas and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Kirsten, the young actress who worked with Arthur Leander on
King Lear, struggles with life on the road. She carries with her not only the desire to produce art in the form of drama, but she also carries Arthur’s legacy in the form of the
Station Eleven comic books. She represents the strength and resilience of
humanity despite incredible challenges. The surprise ending is definitely a
hopeful omen for the future of the human race.
Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels including The Singer’s Gun, which won the Prix Mystère de la Critique in France in 2014. Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as being chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by
The Washington Post and TIME Magazine. Mandel’s message in Station Eleven is a powerful reminder to readers of the importance of perseverance, memory and community. In the words of Dr. Eleven, “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” (p.42)